Defection issue more than hypothetical

May 04, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The question to the Cubans was simple.

What if one of your players chased a foul pop-up into the Orioles' dugout and didn't come out?

Manager Alfonso Urquiola laughed as the interpreter relayed the translation. Third baseman Omar Linares leaned back in his chair, smiling.

Such pranksters, these American reporters, raising the possibility of defection.

"We have no fear. We're not concerned about it," Urquiola said. "We let them play freely on the field."

The ones they bring, that is.

Bad as it was for the Orioles last night, they could have lost worse than 12-6. True, they didn't use their top pitchers. But the Cubans left several of their best players home.

Where was German Mesa, the shortstop who once pinned Rey Ordonez to the bench? What about Yobal Duenas, the second baseman who batted .418 this winter?

"I'd like to know why my cousin is not here," a reporter named Armando Chapelli asked. "When you talk to him, please say hello. We've never met."

Chapelli's cousin, first baseman Loidel Chapelli, was one of 48 players under consideration for the Cuban All-Star team. But Urquiola chose first basemen Orestes Kindelan and Michel Abreu instead.

"We brought to Baltimore a selection of players in the best condition right at this moment," Urquiola said.

Translation?

A selection of players unlikely to defect, not that the Cubans' play suffered.

Urquiola bristled at the questions about his missing players, in the grand tradition of a manager under fire. But after winning so handily, it's not as if he needed to apologize.

His team not only pounded the Orioles, but apparently returned to Cuba with its roster intact, a double play that will delight Fidel Castro.

Indeed, for all the talk about a people-to-people exchange, the threat of defections provided much of the drama surrounding last night's exhibition. And, as demonstrators spilled onto the field, the political undertones could not be ignored.

The mere sight of Linares and Cal Ripken exchanging autographed baseballs during a pre-game news conference offered a poignant reminder of how two men can work the same job, but live in entirely different worlds.

Linares and his Cuban teammates clearly were overcome by the moment, the long-awaited thrill of playing a major-league team at a major-league park.

"I believe the dream we all had is coming true," Linares said.

"This is going to be an unforgettable experience," second baseman Antonio Pacheco added.

And, for reasons that had nothing to do with baseball, the Orioles knew that the night might prove unforgettable for them, too.

The question to B. J. Surhoff was simple.

What if a Cuban player approached you during the game and said that he wanted to defect?

"That's a very difficult question. It's hypothetical," Surhoff said. "I don't think any of us know what we would do in that situation, unless it happened.

"I think you would want to be sympathetic. But I'm not sure you would know what to do if the situation arises. I'm not sure what the process would be."

As it turned out, the issue never surfaced.

Before the game, Linares and right fielder Luis Ulacia passionately explained their decisions to stay in Cuba, rather than defect like the New York Yankees' Orlando Hernandez, Tampa Bay's Rolando Arrojo and others.

"My decision is very simple," Linares said. "I was born there. That's where I was raised. That's where the revolution gave me an opportunity to study and turn into a professional in my sport."

Ulacia said he would relish the chance to play in the U.S., but added that, "The main thing is to have the opportunity to remain and live in Cuba. I feel that we should not be forced to defect to play in the major leagues."

Right now, that is impossible.

"If we ever made it to the major leagues in the U.S., payment would be very difficult because of the embargo," Ulacia said. "If they give us the opportunity to play, I don't think the Treasury Department would allow the money to reach us."

How, then, could it work?

"If it were for free, we'd be willing to play, too," Ulacia said.

Clearly, Ulacia has yet to meet Joe Cubas, agent to the defectors. Or Donald Fehr, head of the major-league players' union.

Later, Linares appeared at a separate news conference with Ripken, the two great third basemen, side by side.

After Linares departed, Ripken was asked if it he felt badly that such an accomplished player received so little money and recognition.

"I wish I knew all the factors involved," Ripken said. "I have to believe he has had a certain fulfillment and enjoyment out of the game of baseball that you can attain regardless of where you play or how much money you make.

"I feel very lucky to play at this level, with the fan attention and all that's involved with it. I would wish that opportunity for everyone who has that kind of talent."

The Cubans got their opportunity, if only for one night.

Twelve runs, 18 hits, no defections.

Leave it to the Orioles to make Castro look good.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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